Affirmative Action for Europe

The violence in France, fueled by staggering unemployment and ruthless policing, reflects the utter failure of the French model of social integration. But violence elsewhere in Europe, such as the London bombings of July and the brutal murder of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh on the streets of Amsterdam in November 2004, had already made Europe’s failure to integrate its minorities painfully clear.

As the riots in France fade, French politicians are agonizing about how to proceed. Forty years ago, after legal segregation of blacks and whites formally ended in America, the United States was confronted by similar problems. America’s response shows, however, that integration cannot be viewed as a one-way street. In addition to imposing demands and constraints on minorities to join the mainstream, society must be willing to demand of itself that it make room for all its citizens.

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As a potential model to be followed, Europe should look at the so-called “affirmative action” policies that America enacted to provide opportunities to blacks. Affirmative action, or “positive discrimination,” as some have called these policies, began with university admissions. But, in the early 1970’s, President Richard M. Nixon expanded the scope of affirmative action.

As a result, ethnicity began to be weighed as a positive factor not only in university admissions, but also in public procurement decisions, credit facilities for small enterprises, and government hiring. The rational for affirmative action in those early years was the fact that, after a long history of systemic injustice, merely outlawing discrimination based on race or gender would not ensure equal opportunity for all.

Such programs are often viewed as contradicting a basic American value, namely that admissions, lending, and hiring decisions should be based on the merits of the individual, not group distinctions. But they remain in existence three decades later. Indeed, leading American companies, like General Motors, General Electric, and Walmart, have created affirmative action programs for hiring and selecting suppliers at their own initiative.

Similarly, anchormen and anchorwomen from all ethnic backgrounds populate American television news programs. In France, by contrast, the appointment of the black anchorwoman Audrey Pulvar was big news on its own, because most of her colleagues in France are white.

Affirmative action in the US has been effective in creating a large African-American middle class. The percentage of black households earning over $50,000 a year (adjusted for inflation) has more than tripled over the last four decades, from 9.1% in 1967 to 27.8% in 2001.

Indeed, in the US, more people of color and women hold top jobs in the public and private sector than anywhere else in the world. The fact that a large black underclass remains – something the recent floods in New Orleans revealed in a horrifically dramatic way – is mainly the result of failing school systems.

Affirmative action programs, of course, have always been vulnerable to attack by those who can’t benefit from them. In 2003, a white student asked the US Supreme Court to declare that the use of race in the University of Michigan’s admission policies violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the US Constitution.

The Supreme Court, however, ruled that the program was constitutional, citing a “compelling state interest” in racial diversity. “Effective participation by members of all racial and ethnic groups in the civil life of our nation,” the court said, “is essential if the dream of one nation, indivisible, is to be realized.”

In reaching its decision, the Supreme Court took into account a legal brief submitted by 60 major American businesses, led by General Motors, asking that affirmative action be upheld. They argued that the skills needed in today’s global marketplace can only be developed through exposure to a wide diversity of people. Retired military officers and commanders told the court that affirmative action was essential to maintaining an integrated officer corps.

What America’s affirmative action programs may not do is set quotas for minorities, as this prevents competition between different groups. But, in comparing groups, it is permitted to use an individual’s status as member of an under-represented minority in his or her favor. As a result, a university may select a black student with a satisfactory score on the admissions test, even if there is a white student with a better score.

From the current French viewpoint, however, laws and regulations based on ethnicity are regarded as an unwelcome encroachment on the Republican ideal. French President Jacques Chirac vehemently opposes quotas for immigrants, out of fear that such a policy would stigmatize groups. And French businesses don’t see it as their role to solve the problems of the suburbs.

Moreover, French Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy hasn’t done much except hand out some special grants to the smartest immigrants from the suburbs. France does have affirmative action programs, but they address poverty, not ethnicity.

If European politicians are serious about preventing a schism between population groups, affirmative action is essential – not only at the workplace, but also for small business loans, home loans, public procurement, and school admissions. Tony Blair, who in July was faced with the shortcomings of integration in the UK, should take advantage of the country’s current presidency of the European Union to make affirmative action programs the top priority at next month’s summit of European government leaders in Brussels.